Befriending Difficult Emotions in a Time of Crisis


by Ron Pevny

Like many of us these days, I recently participated in a virtual sharing circle. In this gathering, members of a spiritually oriented community shared their experiences of sheltering-in-place, aka mandated social distancing, during the first stages of the age of coronavirus. One of the focusing questions which we were asked to address was, “what do you do to help yourself feel better when difficult feelings arise?” I personally found this question powerfully evocative, multidimensional, and a doorway to deeper personal and collective exploration than what arises as a first response for most people. I’d like to share with you where this question has taken me.

As I experience the myriad of emotional states that arise each day, I realize that this question about feeling better is predicated upon a mindset that grief, loneliness, fear, disorientation and hopelessness, in their various shades, are negative experiences which call for a response of finding whatever ways we can to counter them, temporarily forget them, or overlay them with positive feelings. This mindset is bound together with the belief that crises such as the current pandemic, with all the inner and external turmoil that they engender, are painful interruptions in normal life to be endured and toughed out until life again returns to normal.

However, I and many others committed to our growth are asking if returning to normal, if that is even possible, would best serve humanity and our imperiled planet when normal means climate breakdown, extreme polarization, ever-escalating income inequality, and pervasive worldwide breakdown of human-centered cultural mores and values. The coronavirus pandemic has compellingly reminded many of us of what virtually all the world’s spiritual traditions have long taught. Life-supportive personal and cultural transformation occurs only through crisis. Individuals and societies tap strength, vision, creativity and connection with our deepest wisdom when old structures and ways of identifying ourselves are cracked open; when our complacency is shattered; when we are thrust out of our comfort zones; when we are forced to acknowledge that the lives we have been living and the attitudes we have been carrying will not be sufficient for the new realities we are facing and for the possibilities that the next stages of our growth call us to manifest. This is the essence of the wisdom about growth and change reflected in the world’s wisdom traditions and in the rites of passage grounded in those traditions. Crisis is the essential catalyst for growth.

But, crisis itself is only a necessary condition for growth to happen. It is what we do with the disorientation, the grief, and hopelessness, the loneliness, the fear and vulnerability and all the other inner experiences evoked by crisis that determine whether our potential for growth is actualized. All growth experiences are passages involving two difficult dynamics: one is a severing from, or breakdown, of a sense of identity that is no longer expansive enough to hold the potential that seeks to arise in us. The other is an immersion in the painful, disorienting process that is in various growth traditions called the neutral zone or liminal (out of normal) time. A global human family in danger of ecological and cultural collapse, but full of the potential for living in mutually supportive community and for healing a gravely wounded planet, has been thrust into a crisis with the potential to be a global rite of passage. And as members of this community, each of us has been thrust into what can be our own rite of passage.

The world’s wisdom traditions tell us that in this hero/heroine’s journey of growth, the new life, the new beginnings, the new potential are found only by facing the dragons that guard the treasures. These are the dark, painful emotions that arise as the challenges of crisis seem immense. For me, facing those dragons means allowing myself to acknowledge, be with, and work to befriend these emotions when they arise rather than following the impulse to push them away with distractions to temporarily make myself feel better. This can involve just sitting with these emotions as they rise and fall. It can include journaling about them. Having conversations with them. Sharing about our difficult emotions with true friends of the heart. Creating simple rituals to honor these emotions as teachers.

By being with my grief and feelings of loss, I see myself getting in touch with what is most deeply meaningful to me—what is most essential to my well being—as I also see more clearly what activities and things tend to encourage me to live superficially day to day.

By feeling the pain, hopelessness, fear and vulnerability that arise, I am more deeply getting in touch with my compassion for my basic humanity and for my brothers and sisters in the human family who live with these emotions in situations much more difficult than mine. This is leading me to be better able to acknowledge my professional work, as well as the everyday acts of caring and compassion I have opportunities to perform, as vital service to others and to the planet, and to even more deeply commit to using my gifts in service.

My allowing myself space to feel loneliness, rather than immediately jumping to
making connections with others, I am more aware of the difference between relating to people who are true kindred spirits who feed my soul, and people with whom connections are shallow and sometimes draining. I’m becoming more aware of the difference between solitude, which feels full, and loneliness, which feels empty.

During this time when social distancing is required and I painfully feel the loss of many of the structured outdoor activities that I so enjoy, I am gaining an even deeper appreciation for my relationship with the natural world. By spending precious time outside without performance oriented activities, I’m viscerally reminded that my relationship with the life-giving beauty, bounty and energy of the natural world is more important than the role nature plays as a venue for recreational activities that I love and miss.

I’m seeing that my feelings of being lost and disoriented, without a roadmap for my future in a changed world, are showing me the limitations of my mind to plan my way forward and of my ego to control outcomes. I feel the necessity for even more strongly

committing to deepen my relationship with my inner sense of guidance, with my Soul, which knows how I can best give my gifts and thrive during this crisis and in the changed world we will live in after this crisis is over.

Perhaps the most powerful gift I am receiving from these difficult emotions is the heightened reminder of my mortality provided by the reality of being in the at-risk age group. I am making a practice of allowing my fears of death to be the ally that various spiritual traditions teach about—the ally that reminds me of how precious is each day and each experience, and how consequential each choice I make.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we will be served by spending large amounts of time inviting or wallowing in difficult emotions. We all need at times to engage in activities that simply help us to feel better. My words here are not meant to produce guilt. But the reality is that, for most of us in this time of crisis, waves of difficult emotions will inevitably arise. We must each find our way to navigate these turbulent waves of change, and it is essential that we extend to ourselves and others plenty of healing compassion as we do so.

What I do want to communicate is that there is a big difference between “feeling better” and feeling that kind of centeredness and aliveness that comes from being fully present with our experiences. I know that when I allow myself to be present with, and work to befriend, the difficult emotions that arise, they are teachers providing important guidance for my growth. And, I also can trust that if I allow myself to experience them without judging them as negative and trying to push them away, each wave will gradually give way to a sense of centered, trusting relationship to my self and to spirit that is very satisfying and enlivening—much moreso than when I choose instead to search for activities just to help me “feel better.”

If your growth is truly your highest priority, then I encourage you to use this liminal time between an old way of being and the new one that seeks to emerge, as retreat time to deeply engage with the growth practices and spiritual disciplines that are important to you. People spend lots of money to go away on retreats where productively engaging with difficult emotions and attitudes is the goal. Now coronavirus has given us that opportunity and all it costs is willingness to, as best we are able, live beneath the chaotic surface of this extraordinary time. We have the opportunity to do the inner work through which this crisis can truly be a rite of passage for ourselves and potentially for the larger human community.

Ron Pevny is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering

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